Familiar Childhood Reflections and a Crucial Balance Needed in Schools
Written by Jeanette Lelchitski, 7th and 8th Grade English Teacher
(Part One of an article from our Spring 2018 Congressional School Magazine)
Read Part Two: Developing Lifelong Readers
As an educator, I consider myself extremely lucky to have the privilege of working hard in a profession I love and which I view as important and positively impactful. I count myself as particularly fortunate because I have the distinct honor of teaching young readers. In my role as a seventh and eighth grade English teacher, I instruct and guide students as they deepen their understanding and analysis of theme and character, form and craft, poetry and prose. These are essential skills for the great thinkers and leaders of tomorrow, so I feel a strong sense of responsibility to do my job well.
In developing curriculum for my classes, I choose poetry, short stories, speeches, articles, essays, and novels that students read in class or independently. I employ a range of teaching methods, including direct instruction, guided discussions, Socratic seminars, and writing assessment. But the longer I have taught, the more I have come to understand that these methods can only do so much. The fact of the matter is that great readers read more than I can assign and learn more than I can teach. Independent reading is an indispensable part of developing reading skills.
Thus, I have come to understand that if I want to give my students the greatest advantage, I have to teach both reading skills and a love of reading.
Habit and Pleasure
I always have a book on my bedside table. On my long commute to and from Gaithersburg, Maryland, I listen to books through my Audible or Overdrive apps as much as my toddler in the backseat will allow. And one of my favorite “me time” activities is to sequester myself away with a good book. I am a lifelong reader, and when I look back at this trait, it is very clear where it came from: habit and pleasure.
I grew up in a reading household. My mother always had a book on her bedside table, and she instilled in me the same habit first by reading to me, then by having me read to her, then by taking me to the library or bookstore to acquire titles to read to myself. I read in the car while running errands, in the living room after dinner, and in bed at night – often later than my parents knew. During the summers, I spent countless hours suspended in the hammock on our screened-in porch, the fan whirring on high to break up the humid Atlanta heat, a book propped on my knees.
In my middle school years, books provided a much-needed respite from the challenges of that age. These years were my greatest period of reading exploration as I had the time, drive, and ability to read a wide range of novels. In the sixth grade, I lost myself in every title from a popular young adult author known for her stories’ thrilling supernatural elements. I picked up The Giver by Lois Lowry after my sister had devoured it. I read a contemporary fiction novel about a girl with anorexia when someone close to me battled an eating disorder. When the prospect of growing up felt just too daunting, I reread all of Roald Dahl’s books. And I read Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier when I felt up to the challenge. Some challenges I tried were just too difficult, though: I started Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton but abandoned it after the long and tedious explanation of chaos theory. I also could not bring myself to struggle through Shakespeare’s language in Romeo and Juliet even though one of my teachers had lent me her own anthology.
In high school and college, an odd shift occurred in this daily ritual I had enjoyed for the first fourteen years of my life: I stopped reading. I read the classic titles assigned in my English classes, of course, but I seemed not to have time for other books. When I got into bed at night, I was too tired and mentally exhausted to read even a page. I could not wait for vacations because that is when I could finally read for the pure pleasure of it.
DID YOU KNOW??
Over 68 hours per student during the 2017-2018 school year were spent reading in class at Congressional School. And with that time, 7th and 8th graders alone finished 1,776 books in just one year!
My teenage hiatus from reading is not unusual. Statistics show that especially once children reach their teen years, but often long before that, they stop reading at an alarming rate. This fact has become even more true in recent years.
As a parent and educator, I find this concerning because reading serves so many important purposes in children’s intellectual and personal development. A good story transports a reader to other times, places, and people outside of his or her immediate reality; it provides experience and therefore builds knowledge. Considering others’ viewpoints through fiction also develops empathy and can tackle prejudice (Bergland 2014, 2015). Reading broadens vocabulary and develops reading skills. And a benefit that is often overlooked: Reading is fun. In a fast-paced world of digital information and constant stimulation, a book forces us to slow down and enjoy ourselves in something as simple and powerful as a story.
Not only does reading make us better, more knowledgeable people, but it also makes children better students. Unsurprisingly, the strongest readers are those who read in large volume. “Independent Reading and School Achievement,” a study by the American Library Association, found that fifth grade students scoring in the 98th percentile on standardized reading tests spent an average of 65 minutes reading per day (Anderson, R.C., Wilson, P.T., & Fielding, L.C. 1988). Perhaps more compelling is the fact that how much a student reads has a high correlation with overall academic achievement as well. Nancie Atwell, nationally-known author and educator, asserts, “Every major study, including results from the PISA (international reading scores), the NAEP (the U.S.), and the SAT, shows that the single most important predictor of academic success is the amount of time children spend reading books. In addition, one of the few predictors of high achievement in math and science is the amount of time a child devotes to pleasure reading.”
Reading is of vital importance to children’s personal and intellectual development, as well as to their academic achievement.
As a result, reading is worthy of close attention by both educators and parents. Thankfully, research consistently shows a clear “formula” for creating great readers: Children become readers by reading frequently and voluminously.
One potential problem with this recipe for success is that people like to engage in activities which they enjoy, so if reading feels like a chore, children – and adults – are not going to do it, especially not frequently and voluminously.
I certainly do not regret that my formal education required that I read many great works of literature. After all, I had to struggle through Shakespeare’s language in my ninth grade English class before I could come to appreciate his universal truths about human nature and peerless genius for words. However, there needs to be a balance in any literacy curriculum: We need to expose students to literature and guide them through the nuances of craft, voice, and theme. But if the greatest predictor of academic success is volume, it is not enough to assign mountains of classics and hope that our students actually read them. We also must give children intrinsic motivation to read.
Former 7th and 8th Grade English Teacher